Political pundits could ascribe a hundred reasons for the rise of the BJP, including polarisation of votes. But what we often miss is its greatest strength. The BJP has a robust internal democracy. Any ordinary worker can dream of reaching the top, and Narendra Modi’s rise serves as an inspiration. Every position, right from the booth level to the national president, is an elected position and elections happen every three years. Contrast this to a common man joining the Indian National Congress.
What is the highest he could aspire for when every position is filled through nomination from the top?
In the pre-Independence era, Congress had the most vibrant inner-party democracy among all political parties in the world. Who can forget the historic win of Subhas Chandra Bose against Mahatma Gandhi’s nominee in 1939 in the Congress party president elections? Slowly, the first family of the party tightened its grip—from the Indira Gandhi era onwards.
The last internal elections in the Congress party was done in 1992 by Narasimha Rao when he was running a minority government at the Centre. Before him, the last internal elections had happened in 1973. In the intervening period, Indira Gandhi and her sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, held the Congress leadership. This election brought leaders such as Mamata Banerjee to the forefront. Though the grip of the family caucus continued, influential leaders such as Rajesh Pilot and Sharad Pawar continued to contest in internal elections. Pilot lost to the family nominee, Sitaram Kesri, for the party president’s post, but it was refreshing to see someone willing to contest for the position.
The rot in the Grand Old Party had started immediately after Rao’s tenure ended. However, it was only with Sonia Gandhi becoming the Supreme Leader that any semblance of internal democracy died in the party. She held multiple positions like the Congress Parliamentary Party leader, the chairperson of the UPA, the head of the election committee and the working committee, and the convener of the national advisory council during the UPA regime. She served as the Congress president for nearly two decades, the longest-held by anyone in a party since 1885. Even Jawaharlal Nehru was party president for only four years after Independence.
In 1997, Mamata left the Congress, and in 1999, there was an exodus of influential leaders such as Pawar and PA Sangma, from the Congress, thanks to the Gandhi family asserting its grip over the party once again. Many state-level leaders left the party in the subsequent years as the Congress sunk once again to nomination method of electing its leaders at all levels. From top to bottom, they filled all the posts through nomination. As Congress General Secretary, Rahul Gandhi made some half-hearted attempts in reviving inner-party democracy in 2008. He started organisational polls in the Youth Congress, but that too ended up as a damp squib. Most contestants were elected unopposed.
A democracy needs a vibrant Opposition that can keep the government on its toes and not a party that is run like a private fiefdom. Lack of a credible Opposition will only breed complacency in the ruling circle. If one can win—whether or not one governs well—why bother to govern at all? We had seen it during the Indira Gandhi era when India became a basket case in the world, where there was no credible Opposition to the highly popular Prime Minister.
Likewise, India has no opposition party at the moment. It became clear during the lockdown when millions of hapless migrant workers were walking home for hundreds of miles. Imagine this happening a decade ago when the UPA was ruling. How would have the then Opposition reacted? Any opposition leader worth his salt would have walked along with the people. He need not start any agitation but just walking with them in solidarity, following all the social distancing norms would have made a difference. An opposition party with cadres would have made it into a mass movement, like what Jayaprakash Narayan had done during the Emergency. Instead, what we got was stale discussions in an air-conditioned studio on how to turn around economy with a former RBI Governor.
With an Opposition like this, we are looking at a single-party rule for many coming decades. One can only marvel at the way at which a party that ruled the country for almost 55 years is self-destructing itself at the altar of servility to one family. There are two choices before the Grand Old Party. If they want to survive, they should kick-start inner-party democracy from the booth level. Or they can continue like this and speed up the hara-kiri so that some other party will take its place. One way or another, India needs a strong Opposition to emerge before it is too late.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy